Scooting Into Mordor


To paraphrase Mayor Adler, half the city considers the scooters their precious and the other half would throw them into the fiery pits of Mount Doom. But that's pretty typical with issues at City Hall where there always seems to be a passionate constituency on both sides of every issue. 

Hundreds of thousands of rides occur every month and while studies show that only .02% of rides result in injury, council members hear frequent reports of "near misses" and calls for better behavior by riders with more enforcement by the city.  

Accordingly, last week the Council approved the first safe rider ordinance (read the draft version) and provided additional direction to staff on how to further regulate the dockless mobility (or "micro-mobility") companies for a final decision in August. 

Despite some otherwise great reporting, there were some missed details:

Headline: "Electric scooter riders, cyclists officially allowed on Austin sidewalks after City Council vote" — Community Impact

Scooters and cyclists were always allowed on sidewalks (see later in that same story where it says "Although no law prohibited riders from traveling on sidewalks..."). There were a couple of streets that had been defined in city code as prohibited despite a serious lack of enforcement and the public not knowing which streets those were. The new ordinance restores the existing process under state law which allows the Transportation Department to designate areas where mobility devices cannot be on sidewalks without requiring a council vote.

"...establishes that riders are able to use sidewalks anywhere in town, without the “dismount zones” included in previous proposals (and enforced, at least in theory, during South by Southwest)" — Austin Chronicle

Again, these devices were always allowed on sidewalks and while the "dismount zone" section of the formal ordinance was removed, it was actually unnecessary. The article itself cites a dismount zone that was along 6th Street during SXSW which was implemented without it having to be defined in the law (which is where their photo came from... scooters were disabled when they hit 6th Street so people had no choice but to leave them there. Unintended consequences!)

"Objections generally fell into two camps: Council members Alison Alter, Kathie Tovo and Leslie Pool each insisted on the importance of having tools to hold scooter users and operators accountable for infractions, while Council members Jimmy Flannigan, Natasha Harper-Madison and Greg Casar led the defense of dockless mobility against potentially excessive regulations." — Austin Monitor (paywall)

Oof, where to begin. This explanation falls into a classic "us vs. them" trap that really doesn't apply. Every member of the council wants the right tools to make these devices work, including regulating the companies themselves. It's not as much a question of "excessive" regulation, but which set of regulations will actually accomplish our goals without resulting in more unintended consequences. The Franchise model proposed by staff gets some of it right, but ultimately the franchise system fails when applied to highly competitive and evolving markets. And credit to CM Ellis, who joined me and CM Harper-Madison in pushing against the franchise model.


Despite those missteps most of the reporting on this issue was great, especially on my concerns with the franchise model (Fox 7 Austin, Community Impact). These new mobility devices (and whatever the next stage of innovation looks like) have the potential to be powerful tools that help get more cars off the streets, make public transportation more accessible, and raise additional funds for infrastructure without raising taxes. We must find a way to support innovation in all its forms when it comes to traffic... failing to do that would be worse than not riding the eagles to Mordor.


Follow the discussion about this post on Facebook or Twitter.  Photo and headline inspiration credit to @NickdeSemlyen.

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